An address to JMU and Area Arts Educators and Students


Arts and Higher Education
Jan. 30, 2014
Forbes Center for the Performing Arts
President Jonathan R. Alger

An address to JMU and Area Arts Educators and Students

Good afternoon, everybody. What a special topic this is. I know everybody in this room shares a passion for the arts and that’s why you’re here. When I was thinking about this talk, I thought about both the personal and professional perspectives on the value and the importance of the arts, and that’s what I hope to share with you today, as well as some broader points about the arts. It’s a little different than what I might typically do, but I think it’s important because all of our lives have been impacted by the arts in different ways.

First of all, I want to say thanks to all of you who are here and who are involved with art education in one way or another. This is a time in our national history when you hear a lot about the importance of science and technology—and certainly those are very important to our society—but often the arts are given short-shrift in our national conversation right now, especially in higher education. It’s important to take a moment like this to really reflect on why the arts are so valuable in the 21st century. When I think of the arts I really think of all of you as being the heart and the soul of the university in so many ways. You all know that we have a new strategic plan here at the university that talks about a vision to be the national model of the “engaged university,” that is engaged with ideas and the world. And that is very much what the arts can help us to do, both in and outside the classroom.

The arts in my own personal life, experiences

Let me start with some brief personal reflections on the impact of the arts in my own life that have helped me to understand why they play such an important role today in the university. Throughout my entire life, the arts have been a part of who I am and a part of my family as well. I grew up singing in choirs from the time that I can remember, I played the trombone all through school, and I was in a few shows. There are a lot of valuable lessons that I learned from my experience with the arts—both the visual arts, the performing arts, the fine arts, and that whole constellation. Certainly, building self-confidence is one, as well as learning things like presentation skills and public speaking, which is what I’m doing here today. The arts can be very helpful in that regard. The experience of teamwork is, of course, present in the arts, whether it’s in a large orchestra, a chorus, or a marching band. These are all things that you couldn’t do on your own, but they collectively create the incredible things that we can accomplish when we bring our various talents and skills together. The arts also give us a sense of accomplishment when we tackle difficult things, like mastering a challenging piece of music. That, again, is how you can build self-confidence, overcome obstacles, and learn what you’re capable of doing. The arts involve developing a keener sense of our own surroundings and finding ways to express ourselves—our ideas, our dreams, our hopes for the future—in ways that are really unique. And, finally, the arts assist us in developing empathy for other people.

I want to share with you a few pictures from my office. Those of you who have been in my office might recognize these. Does anybody know who this man is? That is Mstislav Rostropovich, the world famous cellist and director of the National Symphony for many years. I don’t expect you to know the woman in the middle, but that’s actually my grandmother, who was a music teacher. Many years ago, I sang for a long time with a group called the Choral Arts Society of Washington, a large symphonic chorus, at the Kennedy Center. We often performed with the National Symphony. Rostropovich was just magnificent—not just as a director, but really as a person and as a human being. He shared so much of his passion with all of us and his dressing room door would be open after every concert. It was my grandmother’s dream to meet him, and I told her after the concert one night that I’d take her back to his dressing room to meet him. She thought, “Oh no, I can’t imagine that.” I jokingly told her not to worry, and that he’d be dressed. It ended up being a wonderful moment for her. Rostropovich gave her the traditional Russian kisses on both cheeks and talked to her for a while about music education. It is a moment that I’ll always remember. “Slava,” as we called him, really shared that passion and spirit of the importance of the arts and how it can raise the spirits of a nation.

The next picture here is also related to Rostropovich. This is a collage that I made back in 1993 when the Choral Arts Society traveled with the National Symphony to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. We gave a concert in Red Square with over 100,000 people in attendance. This was a very tense time internationally, and Russia was front and center on all the news media outlets around the world because there was a sort of counter-revolution going on. Boris Yeltsin was in power and there was a threat that his government might be brought down, so there were a lot of concerns about having the National Symphony and a large chorus from Washington going there. But, Rostropovich was determined. He said, “We need to show our support for democracy and there is no better way to do that than by giving a free concert in Red Square.”

It was a remarkable event. One of the pieces that we did was the “1812 Overture.” Those of you who are familiar with that piece know that there are cannons involved. And every time one of those cannons would go off, everyone would turn to look over at Yeltsin to make sure that he was okay. It was an amazing moment that showed the power of the arts in bringing people and societies together.

This next picture is from the front page of the Washington Post on July 4, 1998. I was one of a couple of people who were lucky enough to have their picture taken for this event, which was when the Choral Arts Society sang in the “A Capitol Fourth” event in Washington, DC that celebrates July 4th every year. This performance was a reminder that artistic expression is a big part of our national heritage and of our freedom and democracy.

The arts bring people together in more personal ways, as well. You might recognize this individual, my wife Mary Ann. We met in large part through the arts because we both had that interest. We actually met at church, but it was through a musical. We put on Godspell at the National Presbyterian Church and that’s how we got to know each other better. By the way, you all probably know that our very own JMU music department will be having a special concert there on Feb. 16. We are very excited about that opportunity.

Mary Ann and I also share this passion with the next generation. I had to make sure that our daughter Eleanor was included in the arts as well. As many of you know, she is now a freshman at Harrisonburg High School and is part of the inaugural class of the brand new fine arts academy. In this picture, she is seen as the Queen of Hearts in a performance of Alice and Wonderland last year in middle school. Throughout Eleanor’s transition in coming here to Harrisonburg, I’ve watched how the arts have made such a difference in her life and have helped her connect with other people and develop friendships.

Arts in my professional life

I’m certainly not an artist professionally, but when I think about my own professional journey, I’ve found that the arts have informed my thinking about my own career as a lawyer. My personal favorite musical show is Les Miserables. One of the great things about Les Miserables is that it really brings home some questions about the meaning of law in our society. Two characters have a major conflict throughout the show, as you know. Here, we see Hugh Jackman on the one hand playing Jean Valjean, the man who really gets grace, lives a life of redemption, and affects the lives of many other people. And next to him is Russell Crowe playing Inspector Javer who is constantly chasing Jean Valjean throughout the film and the show. As you probably know, their dynamic represents a tension about different kinds of law. On the one hand, we see in Jean Valjean this sense of the higher law, of spiritual law, and what we are meant to be as human beings. And, at the same time, Javer represents man-made law. There are, of course, laws that have to be followed. And of course in a democratic society, rules are important. But it’s a very interesting example of the tensions within the law and of the whole concept of ethical reasoning and how that relates to a democratic society. It’s no surprise that we are featuring our new Madison Collaborative, which is focused on Ethical Reasoning in Action. Les Miserables has always brought home for me, as a lawyer, a lot of interesting tensions about the role of law in a democratic society.

Right here, of course, we know the Forbes Center is an astounding place for us that brings the community together. In fact, it’s one of the things that brought me here to James Madison University. It was wonderful to know that we had this kind of facility that could be shared with faculty, staff, students, and our community. We hope it will continue to do so.

Across the street now is Duke Hall. It is a very exciting space that is now alive with activity. One of the things that I think is particularly special when we think about collaboration is the fact that faculty participated in designing the spaces at Duke Hall. As we go forward and think about renovating and constructing other buildings, I think it would great to learn from the educators in a particular field or set of disciplines about how to create spaces that will foster meaningful human interactions.

Finally, when it came to the announcement of my own presidency, I thought it was fitting that I was first introduced to this community right here in the Forbes Center, on the stage of the Concert Hall. I have to say, it took all of my willpower to resist breaking into song when I was up there on stage. But, I thought, “Well, I kind of want to keep this job for a while, so I probably shouldn’t do that.” It was a great moment—and one that I thought was symbolically important for the university—that that’s where my journey began.

The arts as high-impact learning practices

Now, let me turn to the educational environment as we think about the role of the arts in education settings. You all know that we have a great General Education program here, and we consistently talk about this concept of “engaged learning.” This refers to active, not passive, learning. It’s not just somebody taking notes and listening to a lecture. We really want our students to have life-changing, transformative experiences in and outside the classroom. And there’s a lot that we can learn from the arts in all of our disciplines about that kind of engagement and transformation. The general education program is called the “human community,” and it focuses on how we are all interconnected with each other. As part of that program, all students complete one course devoted to analysis and appreciation of the fine arts. These courses ensure that students are able to recognize that the arts are accessible and relevant to their lives. I love those words—“accessible” and “relevant.”

I was just in Richmond early this week talking to state legislators about financial support. At this time in history, we get questions like, “Why, these days, should students major in the arts? Shouldn’t everybody just be majoring in the STEM disciplines?” And, again, STEM is certainly an area of growth and importance at the university, but the arts are very important too. It’s been interesting to have this conversation—whether with legislators, parents, or others—about why the arts matter. Why is it valuable and important to study the arts in the 21st century? You’ll hear some people say that it’s a luxury or it’s a frill, but you’ve all seen that a lot of budget cuts in many school districts have adversely impacted the arts. Unfortunately, I think that’s a real mistake in our society. Therefore, it’s important to be able to say why the arts matter.

There’s an organization that some of you may know called the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It has actually done a lot of work with liberal arts education more generally, and has studied the “High Impact Learning Practices” that transform students’ lives.
They have surveyed employers, for example, to find out what skills they want to see in students as they graduate from college in the 21st century. The answers have been somewhat surprising and interesting; the employers have focused on things like critical thinking, analytical skills, ethical reasoning, appreciation of diversity, and teamwork. These are themes that ought to resonate with all of us as we think about the Strategic Plan for the University. And, there’s actually been a lot of research shown about how you produce those types of learning outcomes.

So, let’s look at a few examples of how we do that. First of all, this is a photo that is probably familiar to many of you, as I understand that some of you either now live or have lived in Wayland Hall, a residential learning community at JMU that brings together students interested in all areas of the arts. The students living in Wayland take a seminar together their freshman year that serves as a phenomenal opportunity for interdisciplinary study. Earlier this year, my wife and I had the chance to visit the seminar and talk to students about their experience. One of the questions I asked them was, “What kinds of things happen spontaneously when you’re all together with these different artistic backgrounds and interests?” A student described this in a way that, frankly, just about brought tears to our eyes. She said, “I’m a painter, and I was working on a painting. I was stuck trying to depict a certain kind of movement until my roommate, who is a dancer, actually danced for me and demonstrated exactly what I was trying to do.” That’s an example of the magic that can happen when you bring diverse students together both in and outside the classroom.

Here are some other examples of these High Impact Learning Practices. Have any of you been to the home of JMU alum Paul Holland in Silicon Valley? It’s called one of the most sustainable homes in the United States. The house provides an interesting and interdisciplinary marriage of arts, engineering, and other disciplines. So, our College of Visual and Performing Arts and the Engineering Program are actually working together and building a team-taught summer course for design and engineering students in which they will meet with the companies that were involved in constructing this magnificent home. The courses are ones in which students are going to be taught and learn together in teams, emphasizing this idea of teamwork and problem-solving in real life. How do you create a home that is both beautiful in an artistic sense, and sustainable and environmentally conscious for the 21st century? We hope that these types of marriages across the university will continue.

In this photo, we see a student engaged in service learning, which relates back to the idea of the engaged university and High Impact Learning Practices. This is Allison, who is a JMU student, in a service class. She is learning while the students around her are benefitting as well. You all know that we started as a teachers’ college, so teaching is very important to our identity here at James Madison University. This idea of active service learning allows our students to engage with the community around them and benefit people, while also learning a great deal themselves. Service learning is another great example of a High Impact Learning Practice.

We also reach out quite a bit to the community in a variety of ways. When we talk about engagement, there is engaged learning, but there is also community engagement. One of the things I love about the Forbes Center is that it has allowed us to engage with the community in new and exciting ways. At JMU, we had a student performance of Romeo and Juliet. We had the foresight to reach out to middle and high school students here in Harrisonburg—including my daughter’s drama class, which had just read the play Romeo and Juliet—and we brought them here to see the show. For many of them, it was the first time they’d set foot on a college campus. You won’t be surprised to know, by the way, that the girls in the middle school class particularly liked the romance while the boys liked the sword fighting. They all found something to enjoy. Overall, it was a great opportunity for students—many of whom had never seen a Shakespeare performance before—to learn about the timelessness and the important messages that you can learn from studying something like Shakespeare.

Another interesting and fun example of high impact learning occurred when Patti Lupone visited JMU’s campus. What an incredible opportunity it was to have a multiple Tony Award winner right here at the Forbes Center giving a master class for our students and for others in the community and singing with our own orchestra and musical theater students. Patti Lupone said that she does not normally do that, but that she knew when she came to James Madison University that the necessary talent and the dedication would be there. This was a life-changing experience for students to get to interact with someone of Patti Lupone’s caliber. She also talked about her life and her career in the arts, and it’s those intergenerational connections that inspire the next generations to come. These are the types of relationships that I hope we can continue to foster here at JMU.

Another example was when Bobby McFerrin was here and connected with our students by giving a master class. I was unfortunately not there for his class, but I understand that he came and taught students from JMU and the local K-12 schools about how to compose songs on the spot. Boy, I wish I had that talent. You can imagine how words of encouragement like that planted seeds for students who had the chance to interact with him.

Another type of High Impact Learning Practice can occur far off campus. At JMU, we have a domestic study abroad program called “JMU in LA.” The School of Media Arts and Design takes students to Los Angeles for a 9-credit program where they take classes as well as engage in internships in the entertainment industry. We had the chance to visit this program this past summer. It was an amazing experience to hear what these students were learning, and particularly to hear about the type of hands-on learning that our students are engaged in through their internships. Some of them, by the way, came away with jobs just from that summer experience. So if people ask “Can you get a job through the arts?” here is a great example.

Another very exciting example that I hope will be available to everybody at JMU going forward is study abroad. This is a picture from our Florence program, which I also had a chance to visit last summer. What an amazing opportunity it is to learn about our international cultural heritage and how societies and civilizations are related to one another. Some of you may know Alessandro Gentile, who is pictured here. He is a Dante scholar and gave an amazing lecture about how the arts, sciences, math, philosophy, and other disciplines are connected. All of these disciplines are certainly influenced by those great minds of the Renaissance in Florence like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He also talked about this long arc of history and how our own founding fathers used these ideals in creating the American democracy. We tend to talk about our founding fathers as if they developed something out of whole cloth, but, in fact, someone like James Madison studied Machiavelli and other great political philosophers throughout the ages as he worked on the American Constitution. This trip was a great reminder of how we are interconnected beyond our national shores.

Engaging with the community and the world through the arts

One other example of engaging with the community also means bringing the world to us. This picture shows the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir. My daughter sings with that group and they are a wonderful children’s choir here in the community. Our own Jo-anne van der Vat-Chromy is its interim director on top of all of her other responsibilities. I want to give a special shout out to Dr. V because she has been an incredible inspirational figure to all of us in our family.

Here is a picture of the new fine arts academy at the high school right here in Harrisonburg. I want to thank everybody who was involved in that development at a time when we hear so often about the arts being cut back. This type of innovative program puts Harrisonburg on the map. This is a drawing card for our community, and a way for people to know that when their children come here, they can get a world-class education in the arts. And, it’s an example of the kind of collaboration that can take place when you have a university with strengths in the arts like JMU.

Another type of outreach that we do for the community is Children’s Playshop. We went to one of these productions last summer, and they’re now gearing up for their next season. They reach out largely to children in the 3-10 age group, but I have to say I enjoyed it too when I went. The idea is not only to expose children to the arts in a fun way, but these productions put on by our students also bring these young children onto a college campus, which I think is very important.

Another way that we do that is by bringing all kinds of middle school and high school students onto JMU’s campus through competitions. We hosted a regional marching band competition this past year, which brought students to campus from Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia. A total of forty-seven different bands participated. These opportunities bring them onto a college campus so that they can envision what life is like in college and imagine what it would be like to get a college degree. This is the kind of outreach I think we need to continue to do across the entire University.

When we engage with the world, what better way to do it than being on national television? In this picture, you all recognize our Marching Royal Dukes at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was really cold after sitting outside for several hours. But, boy, was it worth it to see our Marching Royal Dukes featured nationally. It brings tremendous advertising for the University across the country; something we couldn’t buy if we wanted to. It’s also an illustration of the role that the arts play across the whole University. Here, the marriage of the arts and athletics is apparent as well. The Marching Royal Dukess are a central feature of the football game. I always tell people at half time, “I’ll be able to talk, but right now I really want to see the marching band.” The Marching Royal Dukesmake us all very proud. Virtually every major is represented across the entire university in the marching band. It is one of the largest student organizations that we have on campus. And it’s a great example of teamwork.

Now, on to performance. We don’t keep the arts to ourselves. Performance directly relates to engaged learning, engagement with other people, and relationships with other people. Performance and exhibition matter with the arts. One of the High Impact Learning Practices that we talk about is giving people the opportunity to share and demonstrate their talents with others. And, one of our roles as colleges and universities is to share the arts and to share our cultural heritage with other generations. This role is vital for universities and educational institutions in order to sustain and build upon that cultural heritage. There are lots of venues where you have to do things that are commercially viable; the focus is all about what’s popular and what sells. But here we have the opportunity, and also the responsibility, to take risks. To share new, different, and emerging types of art: to experiment. Some things will work better than others and some things will be more popular than others, but that is part of what we do here at the Forbes Center.

The ability of the arts to challenge difficult issues

Now, turning to the topic of diversity. This is one of the greatest issues of our time, and the arts can tackle and address this issue in a way that nothing else can. Why do diversity and the arts fit together? Certainly we know that the arts permit us to learn from different perspectives. We can see the world through the lenses of people who have different backgrounds, different points of view, different skills, different talents, and experiences. We need to be very intentional as we think about the arts to make sure that we are reflecting the great diversity of our country. There are white males, like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart—and yes, they are great musicians—but there are other great musicians we need to expose our students to as well.

In this photo, we see students at work, engaged with diverse colleges and diverse experiences. Denise Graves was on campus not long ago, as one of the artists who has broken down barriers and stereotypes in the arts. And most recently, we have created a new Diversity Mosaic on the first floor in Rose Library. We generally tend to think of East Campus as being associated with the sciences. But, we had a member of our own staff, Sarah Swanland, who decided that she wanted to bring the university together and create a piece of art for the Rose Library. It is a wonderful mosaic based on the theme of the night sky. What you’ll see is forty different stars and orbs, which were created by different student organizations. Each organization contributed one panel. The idea here is that each panel by itself—and each tile with each mosaic—is important and beautiful, but they create something totally different when you put them all together. It’s about forty-eight feet long and is a remarkable piece of art. I love that idea of the mosaic as a metaphor for the university. Each tile represents an individual or group on our campus, which together create something beautiful and greater than its individual parts.

Diversity in the arts allows us to have free expression, to have people demonstrate their passions, and to share them with others. One of my favorite examples is the Furious Flower Poetry Center. Furious Flower shines a spotlight on African American poetic expression over the last century. They try to create awareness for the next generation of poets by putting a spotlight on them. Pictured here is our own Dr. Joanne Gabbin along with Toni Morrison at an event that also featured Maya Angelou. It was an incredible experience to see those three women together, sharing their talents with students from JMU and Virginia Tech.

Another example of diversity in the arts involves individuals with disabilities, which fits into seeing the world with a different lens and different perspective. The Axis Dance Company was here not too long ago. They help us to envision disabilities in a more positive light. They have a dance performance we see here called “Picturing Disabilities,” which was just one part of a multifaceted week of events. The community was also involved as part of this. How exciting it was for them to see what people can do, and to broaden people’s ideas about what the arts can be.

One of my favorite quotes about diversity and the arts in our society comes from Kevin Spacey, who gave a lecture not too long ago at the Kennedy Center. He said, “Art and creativity [are] one of the most significant ways that humanity [is able] to fight back and lift itself out of the muck, and the dirt, and the grime, and the horror, and the unfairness of political persecution, racist attack, hatred, intolerance, and downright cruelty.” His point was that the arts provide a way to fight back, and to start to overcome some of those tremendous challenges in our history and in our society. That is what the arts can do for our culture; they help us to advance and appreciate each other’s differences.

The arts also help us to connect across disciplines. Some of you might have participated in or saw the “Dance of Art and Science” not too long ago on campus. What you see in this photo is JMU freshmen who had read articles about the DNA age, focusing on science, ethics, and community concerns. That entire freshman class, 4,100 students, participated in a group dance on campus, symbolizing a single strand of DNA. As part of this experience, two great leaders in their respective fields, Liz Lermon of the Liz Lermon Dance Company and Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project (and who is now the director of the National Institute of Health), came together on campus and spoke together about how the arts and sciences are interconnected.

Another example is the arts and the environment. Here, we see Michael Singer. He’s an internationally recognized artist and designer. He talks about how we integrate community needs, sustainable building plans, land use, environmental responsibility, and aesthetic design. He has developed a signature cross-disciplinary style by bringing these things together, spawning new possibilities for architecture to meet the needs of our communities in the 21st century. He has exhibited works here at JMU and has provided guest lectures and consultation as we have designed and redesigned our own spaces.

Another one of my favorite examples of cross-disciplinary opportunities that is not always at the front of people’s minds is art and entrepreneurship. Pictured here is Mike Rayburn, who gave the senior convocation address here at James Madison University. With all of the focus on earning a living and the idea of having a job right after college, we want our students to remember our mission statement. We want our students to have productive and meaningful lives. Mike has given us a great example of how you can create your own pathway when one previously didn’t exist. He is an entrepreneur and a great classically trained musician. Basically what he does is he combines different genres of music. He’ll play an Elvis Presley song but in the voice of another singer. He does all sorts of interesting combinations like that. He combines music with an inspirational talk about creating your own pathway and following your own passions and dreams. A lot of our arts students are now studying things like art management, taking some business courses, and understanding finances, because we want our students in the arts to pursue their passions but also be able to understand that there may not be some cookie cutter job for them. They might have to blaze their own paths. And yes, it can be done. Mike Rayburn is a great example of that.

Another great example is the arts teaching us about leadership and teamwork. The Orpheus Chamber is going to be here next month. It’s a great example of the “conductor-less” orchestra, where you provide leadership facilitation collectively in the organization. Students within business and psychology are going to come together and learn about Orpheus.

Technology is important in the arts as well. At JMU, we recognize that technology and the arts can—and do—go together. The Madison Art Collection is just one example where we have quick response tags on display, so that you can hold up your smartphone and learn about that particular painting or piece of art. In April 2013 we had our first publication by an Honors student in iBook form, which was a study of Shenandoah folk traditions using oral history, video, and multiple images of sculpture by a local artist. That is what the future looks like for the arts and for technology. We also have a lot of our collection items not only on display in a museum, but also available 24-7 globally through the virtual world of Second Life. We are going to be hosting a conference for museum professionals at our own virtual campus in Second Life coming up. That is another really interesting opportunity of how we are using technology with the arts.

Arts improving the world

Why are the arts important? What do you gain from it? I personally think we would be a better society if we fostered more artistic intelligence in all of our citizens. There was an interesting work recently written by Elliott Eisner about artistically rooted forms of intelligence. For example, painting, writing a poem, or creating a musical composition require the ability to compose qualitative relationships. Joanne Lipman wrote a provocative essay recently in the New York Times, asking, “Is music the key to success?” She described some of the most highly successful people in our own society and their own musical training. Some of these might surprise you. Condoleezza Rice was trained as a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. And Steven Spielberg—certainly one of the most successful Americans in recent decades—was a clarinetist and the son of a pianist, James Wolfensohn, who was the former World Bank president. These are amazing combinations of talents. And this is what Joanne Lipman had to say about these different leaders. Consider the qualities that these high achievers say that music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline, and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities noticeably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person; but it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view, and most importantly, to take pleasure in listening.

When we think about civic engagement and the importance of a thriving and stable democracy, the role that the arts and artistic expression can play on that front is significant. This quote from John F. Kennedy goes back to a speech that he gave over fifty years ago at Amherst College, where he talked about the arts and civic engagement. Let me share with you a quote that I think still resonates with us today. Kennedy said, “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci, the age of Elizabeth also the age of Shakespeare.” In America, artists often “contribute not to our size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension.” Like the great poet Robert Frost who saw “poetry as the means to saving power from itself…When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth, which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…The highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to him [or her] self and let the chips fall where they may…And the nation that disdains the mission of art invites…the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope’… I look forward to an America that is not afraid of grace and beauty…I look forward to an America that will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength, but for its civilization as well…I see little of more importance to this country for its future and our civilization than the full recognition for the place of the artist.”

Talk about a vision that still resonates today. These are words that we should still pay attention to as we think about our democratic society.

In conclusion, when we think about this answer to the question that many of us will be asked, “Why study the arts today? Why are the arts important to our society?” I would argue that they are fundamental to the kind of society that we want to be, and to having a stable and flourishing democracy. They provide the ultimate example of free expression. As a learner it has always been my feeling that the arts really are the heart beat of our democratic society and the key to having a democracy that we can pass on to the next generations. We need leaders and citizens who recognize the vital role that the arts are going to play and will continue to play into what makes us human, and to what makes a society worth preserving. They bind us together in community like virtually nothing else can do. So I believe that for all of us in this room who care about higher education, it is our responsibility and our privilege to produce leaders and citizens who care about the arts and have experience with the arts.

Thank you all for what you do—for continuing to talk about the importance of the arts, for studying the arts, and for teaching about the arts. Now is the time, in this age of economic uncertainty, in this age of globalization, to remind ourselves of the timeless importance of the arts in our society and to us as human beings. Thank you so much for being here. It has been great to be with you.

Published: Monday, March 31, 2014

Last Updated: Wednesday, June 8, 2016

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